The balm India so desperately needed
December 20, 2019
I am an Indian. That is the identity I want to assert while vehemently opposing the Citizen Amendment Act. I am not opposing it as a Muslim, although as my friend Harsh Mander said I have every reason to as my family decided consciously to stay in India and reject the two nation theory of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. And I am Indian not by an accident of birth but a matter of choice (as determined by my grandparents who participated actively in the Quit India movement, side by side with Gandhi). Whereas being a Muslim is an accident of birth. And that is why I choose to oppose this dastardly Act as an Indian, a conscious act by a conscious citizen.
For the past days I have been watching the most horrific videos of abuse —both mental and physical–of young students of India by a police force that was clearly instructed to go berserk in dealing with Jamia Millia Islamia and then Aligarh Muslim University. I have been talking and listening to young people all with just one question on their lips: Why?The reasons to me are obvious, as both are ‘minority’ associated institutions in the public perception and it was important for the powers that ruled to draw the CAA into the quagmire of religious, polarised politics. I have not been able to sleep–just as I was not being able to sleep when my fellow citizens were being lynched by mobs with the executioners being set free on bail case after case by the courts. And again when the same crackdown had our fellow citizens in Kashmir screaming in agony, as their young persons were dragged out of their homes by the security forces and terror was spread wilfully and ‘strategically. And now with young people, just students screaming for help, cowering, facing bullets and tear gas for what? For voicing their dissent, for claiming their democratic rights, for protesting about something that concerns them like young people always have, not just in India but across the world.
Laws in the name of religion. Violence in the name of religion. And what does a citizen do when the Prime Minister stands up and points to clothes, and says people in his country –the country he has been elected to govern without bias and prejudice– who wear certain clothes are the ones indulging in violence. Our youth had a response to this and have been circulating illustrations of the police and pointing at the uniform as the clothes instigating violence, and although these do bring a smile there is also that undercurrent of seriousness whereby the police is now being perceived by the youth of India as a force outside the fence. So it comes as a warm wave when the demonstrators in Mumbai followed their huge processions with a Twitter campaign praising the Mumbai police, for its support and its gentle hand. Heartfelt tweets, that are bring out the stark contrast with the police in states like Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh —after Delhi—where the ruling parties insisted on ‘no tolerance’.
After the despondency there is a feeling of sheer exhilaration. The fact that after a long while the young have taken charge. And after the birth of a Kanhaiya Kumar in 2014-2015 we today have a host of young men and women who have refused to be cowed down by the violence, who have returned to the streets with their injuries, who are speaking out loud and clear without fear, who have protected their colleagues by stopping lathi wielding policemen in their tracks, and who are rushing to provide legal, physical, medical help to the students from Jamia and AMU. And who have followed all this and more with street action, with placards, songs, and the Constitution of India.
And all these people are Indians. And many of them are amazing young women, who are at the forefront, refusing to be cowed down, standing up for what they believe right. They gathered at India Gate to pledge themselves to the Indian Constitution, they held up bold No signs against the communal Act designed to divide them, they threw out Madani from a protest meeting as they did not trust him, and they have refused to give interviews to the media that has for long pilloried them, They are not looking for publicity unlike the political leaders, just space to articulate and be heard.
For a long time we marched on the streets, through the 1980’s till now. The issues were unending — women rights, Palestinians, press freedom, secularism. I stopped personally a year ago, disheartened and perhaps even heartbroken at what was the very subversion of democracy and pluralism and secularism and diversity. I recall that when we marched in protests through the turn of the century we would ask each other, ‘how long are we going to do this, where are the younger people, why don’t they care.” It is true they didn’t in that we missed a generation that is now probably between 28-38 maybe even 45, the larger body that decided to follow their own individual dreams.
But over the past years slowly the below 28 started emerging from the cocoon of politics, and what was visible in JNU seems to have suddenly engulfed universities across India. Despite the strong climate of intolerance, and a nasty and brutal police force, they have not hesitated to embrace their colleagues from Jamia and now AMU and tell them —from BHU, from the IITs, IIMs, TISS, from Punjab, West Bengal, Karnataka, Kerala —”you are us, we are you, we are in this together.” And they are not of the organised Left, or the floundering Congress, but just progressive, thoughtful young people for whom India is a whole, and not a piece. And now the protests are being joined, as a placard said, by all with many first time protestors in their 30’s.
This is the most profound sentiment that has emerged from the darkness of state brutality. An assertion where the religious identities have been subsumed by the India we knew, a hug and an embrace that has acted like a balm for the Muslims. I have sensed the fear within, the terror even as the minorities of India absorbed one shock after another for fear of provoking a volcano of reaction. The threat to citizenship moved it from the individual to the collective. In fact it became the last straw on the minorities back that led to a surging which was palpable. Thats all my family and relatives and Muslim friends spoke of – what do we do, where do we go. This is what the right wing wants, we tried to counter. Do not panic. But obviously these words sounded hollow, even to us.
Muslims came out but they did not find themselves alone.The Sikhs and Dalits came out with the Muslims in Punjab, the governments took a position in Kerala and West Bengal, and the students rushed out in Universities all across to support Jamia and AMU in an embrace of empathy. The isolation that has been eating into the minority vitals seems to have ended, and because of this the right wing that controls politics today was not able to justify the hideous Act in the wave of a backlash.
So at the end of it we are all Indians. In this mess together, but sharing the responsibility of taking our country and ourselves out of it.
First published in The Citizen.
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